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The Great Whites Of Alsace

Didja ever see the sign “other whites” hanging over a mish-mash of varieties the last time you visited your favorite wine retailer, while all the hoity-toity varietals like chardonnay and sauvignon blanc got their own signs? The “other” section is a lonely place in a wine shop. Not many customers stop by and it is stocked, in many cases, out of obligation. Didja ever wonder what those “other” wines are?

In addition to eclectic blends and the occasional viognier, you’ll often find the overlooked grapes of pinot gris, gewürztraminer, muscat, pinot blanc, riesling and on rare occasions the long-lost grapes sylvaner and auxerois. These are the noble varieties of Alsace, France. In addition to being one of the most beautiful places in the world, it is home base for some of the most under-appreciated, “other” wine varieties.

Under-appreciated wine varieties! Don’t tell that to winemakers in Anderson Valley, Calif. This frigid, windy, foggy corner of Northern California loves Alsatian varieties, probably because they share many of the climatic qualities of northeastern France, where Alsace is located. Shrugging off the “otherness” of these wines, the Anderson Valley Winegrowers Association has sponsored The International Alsace Varietals Festival in order to place a well-needed spotlight on these delicious white wines.

The fifth-annual festival will be held in and around Booneville on Feb. 20 and 21 ( and features dozens of West Coast winemakers. Booneville is about 100 miles north of San Francisco and a million miles away from the über-elegance of Napa Valley. You won’t see any gleaming shrines to wine here, but you will see a lot smiling faces on some very serious, dedicated winemakers.

I figured if Alsatian whites were good enough for the fine folks in Anderson Valley to celebrate, they’re good enough for me. So I cobbled together 20 wines of the Alsatian persuasion from California, Oregon and Washington for a tasting. Some Alsatian specialists I was familiar with, such as Handley Cellars and Foris, but some not. I was not surprised by the clean, crisp wines, full of fresh fruit flavors. Trying my best not to be cliché, I describe these as “honest” wines.

What the heck is an “honest” wine? It is a wine that hasn’t been futzed with too much. There’s not much oak fermentation or aging. These wines have not been inoculated with lactobacillus to give them creamier, buttery flavors and aromas. You basically get fermented grape juice in a bottle…make that pure, unadulterated, honest fermented grape juice in a bottle.

Why these varietals have not found favor with American wine lovers is a mystery. They’ve got a lot going for them. In general, they’re low in alcohol; they’re inexpensive; due to their scintillating acidity, they are some of the most food-friendly wines (Szechuan cuisine + pinot gris = O.M.G.); and, with the exception of gewürztraminer, they’re easy to pronounce.

So the next time you’re strolling down the wine aisle or perusing a wine list, get crazy and take a walk on the “other” side.

Anne Amie Pinot Gris

Anne Amie Pinot Gris

2008 Anne Amie Pinot Gris, Willamette Valley, Oregon
• $19

• Two Thumbs Way Up

• Clean aromas of tart citrus and a flinty, ozone-like quality. It has flavors of  lime, gooseberry, lemon zest and pear and a light minty finish.

Handley Riesling

Handley Riesling

2007 Handley Riesling, Mendocino County, Calif.
• $18

• Two Thumbs Up

• It has aromas of apricot, green apple, raw almond and peach tea with similar flavors, plus exotic fruits like guava, star fruit and pomegranate.

Foris Riesliing

Foris Riesliing

2008 Foris Riesling, Rogue Valley, Oregon
• $13.50

• Two Thumbs Up

• Simple but pleasant, this wine has a spicy, white pepper, lemon and honey aromas. It has mouth-watering flavors of crisp, green apple with a piercing acidity, peach ice tea, a fair amount of minerals, a light mint quality and pear.

Foris Gewürztraminer

Foris Gewürztraminer

2007 Foris Gewürztraminer, Oregon
• $13.50

• Two Thumbs Up

• Intriguing aromas of honey, apricot and crème fraîche. It has zesty flavors of nutmeg, cinnamon with a dollop of lemon, apricot and dry orange peel. It begs for food, especially spicy Asian dishes.

(Wines are rated on a scale ranging up from thumbs down, one thumb mostly up, one thumb up, two thumbs up, two thumbs way up and Golden Thumb Award. Prices are suggested retail prices as provided by the winery, one of its agents, a local distributor or retailer.)

10 comments Add your comment

Tired of the racist remarks.

January 27th, 2010
1:01 pm

The great whites? Why not just come out and say it….KKK!


January 27th, 2010
1:51 pm

I love the Anderson Valley.

If you go, be sure to visit Anderson Valley Brewing Co. in Booneville. Great beer, fun tour, tasting room, and frisbee golf.

Roederer Estate ain’t too shabby, either.

It takes a lot of beer to make wine.


January 27th, 2010
5:48 pm

Thanks! We are heading there in late Sept and this goes in the file of things to do!

Gil Kulers

January 27th, 2010
6:12 pm

KKK! Gosh, never even saw it that way. I was going for the shark reference. Great white sharks.

Jill Ditmire

January 28th, 2010
12:23 am

Had the pleasure of judging the 2010 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. Over 4000 entries– YES– LOTS of spitting!
I too was blessed to have two days with plenty of Sparkling wines to judge but also had a round of 73 Chardonnays. Ok– the worlds most popular grape is still just that– but even US producers are working to bring back the class in this lass… even a few bottles with NO OAK!
Have fun spittin in the sand while in FLA–
Best Regards,
Jill Ditmire, Owner/Buyer Mass Ave Wine Shoppe
Omnimedia Wine Specialist/AWS Certified Wine Judge jad Productions

Gil Kulers

January 28th, 2010
11:38 am

Jill is referring to my trip (in 5 hours!) to Sandestin to judge wines for their 24th annual Wine festival in April 22-25. ( I will be tasting about 12-15 Chardonnays under $20. Jill, I always keep an open mind. I’m always ready to be wowed….and I don’t give any free passes to the Champagnes I’ll be tasting either!

David Ploski

January 29th, 2010
3:02 am

Sorry, sounds a little like you’re shooting from the hip and rushed this post.
1. Pinot Gris or Gewürztraminer are hardly overlooked grapes. G’vertz maybe, Pinot Gris? really?
Maybe you’re referring to the Alsace “treatment/vinification”??? However Pinot Gris, or Grigio is one of the most ubiquitous varietals in fashion today, so no new news here. It’s the new “overly oaked chard of the 90’s”. Outside of Alsace, and Italy, it’s a snoozer, so I’m still with you.
2. “they’re inexpensive”…really? maybe for you, however an $18 bottle would hardly qualify as an “everyday” wine in my book, and all Alsace, real Alsace, not Oregan (new/world) will set you back at least $18, and does not, in my opinion, fall into the category of “inexpensive”. I will say, however, for the quality of the wine you’re getting, it is indeed “inexpensive”, just hard on the wallet.
3. Sorry I’m being a jerk, Alsace is my absolute FAVORITE wine region in the world. I agree with you. Thanks for shining the spotlight on Alsace!!

Gil Kulers

February 1st, 2010
10:34 pm

David, no need to apologize. I appreciate you keeping me honest and allowing other readers to see a different aspect of the same subject.
You got me on the pinot grigio ubiquity. However, there just ain’t a lot of Alsatian-style pinot gris out there. Some, yes. Enough, no. In fact, I had a reader e-mail me about the lack of choice when it comes with Alsatian wines specifically and Alsatian-styled wines generally….including pinot gris. There is indeed enough pinot grigio around (did I say indeed already?).

$13.50 is expensive? I’ll give you not the least expensive, but two out of the four were under $14. And, I don’t put up the wines that are the least expensive, I put up the wines that are the best out of my blind tasting. There were others that were a couple of bucks less, but they were not as good as these here. The $18 wines listed beat out a couple $35 bottles I had from Oregon.

And if I didn’t shoot from the hip and rush my columns, I’d never get them out!!

Gil Kulers

February 1st, 2010
10:37 pm

BTW, Jill. I tasted only 8 Chards under $20…and they weren’t so bad. No show-stopping winners, but OK. I think the problem with most chardonnays these days is NOT that they’re stinky, it’s that they all taste about the same. Of course, an over $20 Chard. won the best of show in the white category. It was the current vintage of Mulderbosch from South Africa.


February 14th, 2010
6:08 pm

“These wines have not been inoculated with lactobacillus to give them creamier, buttery flavors and aromas.”
Wines are never inoculated with lactobacillus as it is a undesirable spoilage bacteria. However wines are often inoculated with malolactic bacteria to give them the creamy buttery flavors and aromas you describe, which is what I think you were trying to say.